Why I Won’t Be Unemployed in 2017: It’s Apples

Shaded road in North Dakota

There is a huge inequality in the way the economy has played out among people I know.

Business is good and has been getting better all year for me. My friend Jake is doing great. He was an anesthesiologist and several years ago became board-certified in geriatrics. He loves working with older people and his patients love him.

When I travel around the country, though, or catch up with old friends, I find that is not true everywhere.  Others have been unemployed either continuously, or on and off, for a period over the 99 weeks of unemployment.

“People I know” is hardly a random sample, despite what your average sophomore seems to think, but I still thought it would be interesting to look at the people I’ve known for a decade or more and see where our paths diverged. Because these were all people I have known for 10, 20, or 30 years, we all were at the same place at one point. So, what happened?

I’ll tell you what DIDN’T happen. No one who I know that is long-term unemployed or under-employed is lazy. These are people who have worked construction, cleaned houses, loaded trucks, worked in factories and put in twelve-hour days as middle managers. Also, as you can guess by that list, they also are people who don’t consider manual labor “beneath them”.

None of these people are stupid. Some speak two languages. Some have two or three years of college.

Here are three things that did happen, though. One is that they just got old and for those who had spent a lifetime doing physical labor, they just could not do it any more. Their knees, shoulders, hips, hands, back – you name it – gave out and they were unable to do physical work. These folks didn’t have the skills to do a desk job. Even taking a six-month training course on how to use a computer, word-processing, spreadsheets and social media only got them up to where my eighth-grade daughter is already. There aren’t a lot of positions for people with eighth-grade level computer skills.

A second thing that happened was they settled down. They had families. They married. They bought houses. When they lost their jobs, they had a husband or wife who still had a job. They had a mortgage to pay. When the factory closed, they couldn’t just leave town and let the husband/wife watch the kids, work and pay the bills while they went somewhere else and got another apartment and a new job.

Here is the big, big difference between the two groups of people, though- the people who are unemployed quit their education. They got comfortable as a COBOL programmer, teamster, regional manager. When that job was gone, it turned out there was not a real demand for the person who knew more about the blueprint archive at General Dynamics than anyone else in the world.

Why I Won’t Be Unemployed Five Years from Now

Lately, I have been learning javascript/ jQuery. I put them together because I didn’t get very far in the project with javascript before jQuery seemed like a really good addition. I hadn’t done much with IDEs (integrated development environment), mostly using textwrangler up to this point or just the SAS editor. I tried a couple of others before settling on Webstorm, which I like A LOT. Now using an IDE is kind of the programming equivalent to learning Excel, that is not a hugely marketable anything, but more of an assumption. (I confess I still use Textwrangler for quick stuff.)

Even though my last blog was on how you shouldn’t be writing things from scratch, I opened up a new directory in Webstorm, created a new HTML page and wrote a slideshow from scratch right from the CSS to </body> . Just because. I feel like my progress in javascript is slow as mud, but at least now I can write some things. I’ve also written a couple of basic games. When I read things like the jQuery chapter in Flanagan’s book JavaScript: The Definitive Guide, I feel like I only know the tiniest portion, but I was looking at someone else’s code today and while there was no way in hell I could have written it in less than a month, I did understand almost everything that was going on, so that’s progress, too.

I needed to capture some audio so I downloaded audio hijack and invested 10 minutes in learning to use that. I also needed a voice over so I fiddled with Garageband for half an hour. I’d used that before but not lately. Every time I use it, it takes me less time to remember, “Oh yeah, that’s how you do that again.”

I needed to output some mp3 files as ogg files. I don’t even remember why I had audacity in my applications folder. I don’t *think* it came with my new computer. To export as an mp3 file I needed lame, which I also needed to download.

JavaScript is definitely a marketable skill. Being able to mess around with sound files, perhaps not as much so, but it may eventually be another “given”, like an expectation that you can use a word processor.

Most of my career has been spent processing structured data, specifically doing what is now sneeringly called “frequentist” statistics. Looking to update my syllabus for next year, I’ve been looking into data mining, both with SAS Enterprise Miner and Statistica. I was able to download the trial version of Statistica and the On-Demand version of SAS Enterprise Miner.

So …. this is what I have been up to in the last month. Some of those things will not pan out. At one point, I was pretty good with Tel-a-Graf (graphic design software for plotters – yes, plotters), Foresight – another programming language which I don’t think is around any more. I used Lotus Notes and learned SAS FSP (for “Full Screen Product”). I’ve used a VAX, IBM, DEC, Franklin Ace, Lisa and Next computer.

I think I have identified the dividing line between those whose careers stayed on an upward trend all of these years.

It’s apples.


Or, to be specific, it’s the idea of Johnny Appleseed. The way I see it, each new thing I learned is like scattering some appleseeds. Most of them will probably get eaten by birds, fall on rocks or be bought by Microsoft and killed off. If you toss enough seeds around, though, some of them will bear fruit and twenty years later, you’ll have people lined up to pay you for your knowledge of apples.

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  1. You also know how to write and speak well. These “soft” skills never become obsolete. Along with curiosity, creativity, and a desire to learn, they are characteristics that I look for when I interview someone for a job. The worker who has a desire to learn will still be useful 20 years from now, no matter how technology changes.

  2. Not sure that apples is the right metaphor. It’s more like keeping yourself in good physical shape. The fact that you keep on learning makes you be in good “learning shape” for the time when you’ll need to study something new, and use that new skill.

  3. Great points. Viability today means continuous education – much of which must be self led. This must also be checked with continus re-evaluation, to make sure the CE path is on the right course.

    Skills are like financial portfolios – they must be diversified, and must match a healthy segment of the market.

  4. I liked your post and how you’ve expressed how you fuel your “learning engine”. From my experience, too many people take the opposite approach that you have: they say to themselves “I shouldn’t do X from scratch”. But to purposefully not stretch, to not challenge your horizons is to kill your learning engine, and hamper you flexibility.

  5. Thanks for sharing this. I particularly like the line where you said “despite what your average sophomore seems to think”. lol!

    10 years after my University degree, I am still taking courses to expand my skills. I hope my future kids have a similar thirst for learning.

    It’s never too late to learn something new. Ever.

  6. This is so true. Even if you work in IT, you have to be relentless in staying on top of things. Never let a company stick you with working on obsolete technology. Company loyalty does not exist anymore. Let someone else take one for the team. I can’t tell you how many people I’ve known who found a nice, cozy niche for themselves and ended up having a hard time when the inevitable layoffs came down. I’ve been learning a lot of Javascript, CSS3 and HTML5 lately, including JQuery.

  7. I agree with you because I have experienced the benefits of what you describe first hand.

    I’m a developer spending most of my time with PHP, MySQL and HTML.

    There’s no shortage of work in those disciplines.

    At point I was mediocre at best when it concerned Javascript. Sometimes the language felt like it would be easier learning Chinese – backwards.

    But as I spent more time with Javascript, creating my own projects from scratch to learn more, things begun to sink in. You end up having those “Aha! I finally get it” moments.

    Today when I read scripts and applications of complexity; I know whats going on. I know what the author is trying to do.

    At one point I would turn away complex Javascript jobs. Now I welcome them.

    This is one example of yet more languages I’ve added to my over skill set of which there are 11 now and counting.

    The point here is that as you acquire new skills sets within this industry your perspective widens and with it so to does your ability to solve problems. That’s the result of knowledge, power.

    Its easy to leverage that knowledge and turn it into a career be it for working with or for someone else or doing it on your own as a freelance consultant.

    Regardless of where you dwell day to day – the fact remains you’ll never be without employment because your skills are marketable and are in demand from one discipline to another.

    And you’re right about the fact that sometimes the seeds you scatter (the things you learn) may not bear fruit, but the odds are that some and if you’re clever enough, most, will!

    While I don’t recommend learning 100 different things to satisfy moral of this story, as biting off more than you can chew can hinder your progress to a point where you know a little of everything but a lot of nothing – who wants to employ that?

    I do recommend giving yourself the edge and investing in your future by at least picking up a few disciplines that are either complimentary to what you do already or that you have an interest within which also has some kind of demand behind it.

    This type of practice has never failed for anyone I know.

  8. I agree with you Adaz. I just need to point out, though, that having graduated from college in 1978, for me, learning 100 new things is less than three a year!

  9. I just want to say thanks for this post. I read your blog to keep my mind thinking about statistics, even though my job barely goes beyond using descriptive statistics. I don’t expect inspiration from it. However, in reading this, I realised that I’ve been in a learning ‘slump’ lately. I haven’t been challenging my mind, and I’ve been feeling quite uninspired. Thank you for the reminder on the importance of challenging myself.

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